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The rewards of putting your hands in the till

How you can transform your yard this spring.

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I have two approaches when it comes to cold calls, those targeted attempts to sell me, the homeowner, a set of replacement windows or an alarm system. Usually I lie and say I have a family member in that business. Plan B: Pass the phone to my wife. Neither makes me proud.

"A man called this afternoon and said he'd like to come by and build a garden for us," my wife told me two weeks ago.

"What? How did he know we wanted to build a garden? How did he get our name?" I asked, immediately on guard.

"He just plucked it out of the phone book," she said. "But I trust him."

And so last Thursday, just before 9 a.m., a red pickup with a slurry of dirt and water in the bed and a paper bag of seed packets in the passenger seat pulled into my driveway. A man with a sunburned neck and close-cropped, beginning-to-gray curls came to my door and asked if he could look at my lawn.

"What kind of trees are these?" he asked.

"Maple?"

"These are elm," he corrected me. "You're lucky. Not many elms left around these parts."

Our lawn tour continued for another 10 minutes before we settled on a small patch between a light pole and a parcel of dead grass that, when we moved in, was home to a dead tree.

"Sixty-five dollars?" the gardener said.

We shook hands, and soon he was using his roofer's shovel to pile up chunks of sod like Chia Pets in a Kmart clearance aisle. An hour later, I was right there next to him, using a small pitchfork to till the soil by hand and break up big clods of dirt to prepare a 4-foot-by-12-foot rectangle for a top cover of compost. Within about four hours, the gardener finished planting neat little rows of lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, turnips and radishes.

It was then that I asked him one last time if I could mention his name in this space and write about his month-old business.

"Give the publicity to someone else," he said, having already repeatedly demurred. He drove off in his truck with a promise to call in a week and see if anything had sprouted.

I wouldn't blame you if you didn't believe this story. I'd be skeptical, too, if I weren't staring out my window at a smart-looking patch of turned-up dirt where part of my lawn used to be. This is the dream of every would-be gardener — that someone who knows what he's doing will parachute in and just build the damn thing for you.

That never happens, so you make do with a container garden of herbs over the sink, a bag of vegetables from the farmers market. Sure, you could get a cold call like mine, but my name is under B. You might have many seasons to wait before your number comes up.

Still, you have options. You don't have to wait by the cordless like some jilted vegetable lover. And because the only work I did was cutting the check and moving a bit of dirt, I feel that I should pay it forward to those gardeners who have yet to overcome their inertia. Gardening can have a low barrier to entry, if you just know whom to call.

You might start with Kansas City Community Gardens, in Swope Park. Now in its 33rd year, the local nonprofit has an estimated 1,000 members and 180 community-partner gardens.

"Our mission is to help people grow food to feed their families," says program director Andrea Mathew. "The idea is to teach people when to plant and how to plant and hopefully help them have success."

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